May 4, 2021

The article was originally published on Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative website and is republished here with permission.

Just when local news outlets were ramping up audience events as a way to increase revenue and engagement, the pandemic hit.

So their events programs were devastated, right?

Nope.

While in-person events went on the shelf, many local news outlets made an impressive shift to virtual, sometimes even ramping up their level of connection to their audience.

The Texas Tribune, which was known for its public gatherings before the pandemic, found that the simpler, less expensive logistics of going online allowed it to produce more events with an increased profit margin. The Dallas Morning News also boosted its number of events. The Star Tribune reacted to the cancellation of the popular Minnesota State Fair by creating a “virtual state fair” that allowed it to save most of its expected advertising revenue linked to the fair. And the Houston Defender led a surge by Black publications, collecting $60,000 in sponsorships for its first three online get-togethers.

Granted, some news outlets that relied on meet-and-greets to build community engagement found that virtual gatherings had shortcomings. Jim Brady, whose Spirited Media created and later sold digital-only startups such as Billy Penn, noted that smaller, more intimate events took a hit.

“I’m sure community events got crushed because the alternative is just not as compelling,” Brady said. “A lot of our events were about socializing, about getting to know people. You fill a room with interesting people and have a 20-minute panel and then let the next hour 40 (minutes) be people meeting each other. You can’t achieve that in a virtual world in any meaningful way.”

Nancy Lane, CEO of the Local Media Association, agreed that the pandemic’s impact on events varied depending on the news outlet’s approach.

“There were companies that had large revenue streams associated with big in-person events, and that was hard,” Lane said. “Radio stations come to mind. You are not going to replace a musical event with a virtual event. It just isn’t going to happen. It depends on the company and the kinds of events. I will say there were a lot of media companies that were able to pivot to a virtual event strategy and have a lot of success with it.”

According to Lane, events are “definitely one of the five major sources of revenue going forward,” joining reader revenue, advertising, philanthropy and marketing services.

“Depending on the size of your company, it could be the third-highest source of revenue in certain cases,” she said. “… Virtual events are here to stay, and we were forced to get really good at it during Covid.”

Texas Tribune’s shift

Events have been a big part of the success strategy for The Texas Tribune, a 12-year-old, digital, nonprofit news organization. So the pandemic forced some serious scrambling. The Tribune took its get-togethers online and produced more than it had been conducting in-person, according to Jessica Weaver, creative director for live events.

Before the pandemic, Weaver said, “we didn’t have virtual events, but we had been livestreaming for a long time. So we were set up well to make that pivot. But it still required rethinking our events from the ground up and thinking of them as virtual-first events instead of sitting at a camera in the back of the room pointed at the stage. …

“Our events are shorter than they were when they were in-person,” Weaver said. “They’re more narrowly focused. There are usually fewer people involved, because no one wants to watch a Zoom call with 10 people talking over each other. They are a little bit more tightly constructed and focused.”

With these changes, the Tribune has reached a larger audience. For example, an online presentation with Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins attracted 26,484 live views.

“If you were to take our livestream views pre-pandemic and our livestream views during the pandemic, they’re a lot higher now,” Weaver said. “We’ve seen a lot of audience growth, we have been able to reach far more people than we were before. We’ve been able to make some good opportunities out of a not-great situation.”

While some events did not achieve full sponsorship, the Tribune was able to hold the line on its rates, and even raised its rate for single-event sponsors from $3,000 to $4,000, according to April Brumley Hinkle, chief revenue officer.

“The Texas Tribune has not increased our overall event revenue since March 2020,” Hinkle said. “However, we have increased our event profit margin with virtual events.”

Online events offer some advantages for corporate sponsors, she said.

“There’s a lot more brand visibility in front, right on the screen,” Hinkle said. “Because if you’re at an in-person event, we do have signage and things like that, but you may not see it during the actual conversation. … We’re utilizing the gathering time prior to the event to screen brand messages and video, and then they’ll go into a pre-roll opportunity and then into a post-roll.”

The news outlet’s showcase get-together is the annual Texas Tribune Festival. Instead of a three-day in-person event last September, the Tribune gave its presentations online throughout the month of September, a change that cost it some sponsorship revenue. It will announce “in the next few months” whether the festival will be remote, in-person or hybrid, Weaver said.

‘Necessity drives innovation’

The Houston Defender attracted $60,000 in sponsorships to three virtual events, including this one with Defender CEO and Publisher Sonny Messiah Jiles and Texas Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick. (Screenshot, the Houston Defender)

At a time when social justice issues are at the forefront, Black local news outlets have made outstanding progress with virtual events to serve their audiences, said Lane, whose Local Media Association is working with Black news organizations in its “Word in Black” program.

Lane cited events by the Real Times Media group that includes the Chicago Defender; the Afro-American in Baltimore and Washington, and especially the Houston Defender.

“It’s interesting how necessity drives innovation,” said Sonny Messiah Jiles, CEO and publisher of the Houston Defender. “Because when advertisers in March started canceling advertising, and they started slowing down on receivables as far as paying a bill they had already made, we needed to come up with new ways of reaching our audience and also serving our stakeholders and our advertisers.”

One of those ways was events. The Houston Defender had done in-person gatherings and had “big plans” that got shut down by COVID-19, Jiles said. Then the Defender attended a boot camp on virtual events offered by The Texas Tribune. The Tribune’s advice on production, scheduling, fundraising and registration was “absolutely phenomenal … like a college crash course,” Jiles said.

“We made pitches to corporate America, and we were successful in raising $60,000” for a series of three virtual events, she said.

Why such strong corporate support?

“I think they were eager to participate for three reasons,” Jiles said. “One, the African American community was a target for all of them as far as marketplace was concerned, and considering the social justice and the things that were going on. That was somewhat strategic for them. Two, because it was virtual, it gave them a different outlet to experiment with on a smaller scale, with an African American media company, to see how it worked. And then three, I think that because we have relationships with them, they knew we were not going to abuse the privilege or their trust.”

“Once we saw how that worked for us,” Jiles said, “we have now gone back to the drawing table to remap how we’re going to do our events. We do think that the virtual events are effective. We do plan to have some live events when things get back on track, but I think we’ll use the live events only as a reception to kick the virtual events off.”

The whole experience — in the middle of a pandemic — has left Jiles optimistic.

“We’re projecting to generate six figures in 2021,” she said.

How Minneapolis fared

Minneapolis has been through a lot. Since last May, the city has dealt with the unrest and social reckoning that followed the police murder of George Floyd. And at a time when residents craved a sense of community, joy and normality, the Minnesota State Fair was canceled because of the pandemic.

The fair is important for The Star Tribune, bringing advertising dollars for print and online special coverage, providing a stage where the news outlet can present its journalists to the public and sell sponsorships, and serving as a key venue for sales of merchandise and subscriptions.

So what did The Star Tribune do about the cancellation?

“We created our own virtual state fair, which was awesome,” said Tim Ikeman, director of marketing.

The online event lasted 12 days. “There were concerts, there were talent shows, there was a ton of content on food,” said Paul Kasbohm, The Star Tribune’s chief revenue officer. “Our goal was to preserve 60% of that ad revenue tied to our normal in-person exposure at the Minnesota State Fair, and we far exceeded that.”

Kasbohm said the goal for events during COVID-19 has been: “Seek the opportunity within the crisis.”

For example, a music-and-movies series at a park couldn’t be done, so The Star Tribune offered a drive-in gathering that people enjoyed from their cars.

A major Top Workplaces event had to be reinvented as an online experience.

“We took the approach of trying to think about, you’re sitting in your seat as an attendee, what do you want?” Ikeman said. “Typically that would be a couple-hour luncheon at a convention center, and we said people aren’t going to give us two hours. So we chopped it down to 30 minutes and really brought to life the things that make it a celebration, and that worked well.”

This year’s Top Workplaces event is coming up, and The Star Tribune will keep tweaking.

“It’s a year later,” Ikeman said. “We know Zoom fatigue is real. And we’re still going to be doing this event virtually, but we want to have the same engagement we had last year. We think people need a little bit more than what we were able to deliver last year. People’s expectations for virtual events have just grown over the last year.”

The Star Tribune was also determined to create new events that could be presented virtually.

“Before the pandemic, we would do an occasional ‘brew and learn’ where we would invite our advertisers into a brewery or something like that to have a beer, listen to us talk about some of our products and how we could help them,” said Ikeman. “Well, that wasn’t going to work. So we launched this webinar series focused on helping our advertising partners get through the pandemic. It brought content to them on a whole range of topics. We talked about events, we talked about travel and tourism, we talked about retail shopping, we talked about digital changes.”

The 18th webinar in the series will take place in May, and Kasbohm believes the webinars have enriched The Star Tribune’s ties with its advertisers.

“They transformed how local businesses thought about the relationship with The Star Tribune,” Kasbohm said.” It went from ‘The Star Tribune is a place where I place some print advertising, some digital advertising and I sponsor an event here or there.’ We’re now being viewed as an essential and highly consultative business partner that’s really there shoulder to shoulder helping them solve business problems.”

The Star Tribune’s adjustments meant that its events program delivered the three main benefits it expects: Driving revenue, engaging the community and showcasing the journalism.

Kasbohm said the events that could be shifted to virtual presentation “actually met or exceeded” earnings targets because The Star Tribune “was able to save dollars on costs by not having to rent out a large venue.”

Engagement trumps revenue

Unlike some other local outlets, The Dallas Morning News wants its events program to prioritize subscriber acquisition and retention over corporate sponsorship money.

Though the Morning News has some sponsorships with events, “revenue is a nice-to-have, it’s an ancillary benefit. The engagement with our members is our primary goal,” said Jessica Baldwin, director of brand marketing.

“The loyalty and retention program started about four years ago,” said Jessica Cates, loyalty and retention manager. “It’s called Rewards. It’s made up of events and experiences. Prior to 2020, we were hosting around 90-95 events and experiences (per year). The events would be in-person events utilizing our talent in the newsroom, made up of conversations, workshops, real estate tours, business tours, tours of the newsroom, tours of the press plant, anything that we could do to add value to the member’s subscription. The experiences are utilized through our barter relationships with our sales department where we receive tickets to different arts and sporting events.”

All that changed in 2020, but the Morning News was prepared.

“At the end of 2019, I was looking to add a layer of events to our in-person events,” Cates said. “I was looking to go ahead and add a virtual component. … We had our first one scheduled in March of 2020. So when the pandemic hit, we were already ready to roll into a virtual component.”

With the shift to virtual, the Morning News hosted 128 online events in 2020, in addition to the five in-person gatherings that occurred early last year before COVID-19 arrived.

While many events are subscriber-only, the Morning News has opened them up to all comers when they dealt with the pandemic or other issues of such importance that the newsroom has dropped its paywall. Cates said she also allows nonsubscribers into virtual events when there is widespread interest, such as a recent session on property taxes. But even then, the approach is centered on subscriptions, with nonsubscribers who attend the events getting a pitch to become paying customers.

Does the Rewards program work to build loyalty and engagement?

“It does work,” said Cates. “We have seen that members who are actively involved in the program stay longer.”

Cates said she’s awaiting the results of an ongoing data analysis that correlates participation in the program with subscription retention.

The Morning News even offers an incentive for attending events. After one virtual presentation, viewers could take a quiz on the event’s contents, and the winner got a $500 prize.

Baldwin said events were part of her news organization’s push for innovation.

“The company has encouraged us to take risks and try new things and explore,” she said. “That’s a real privilege — we know it is — in our industry. It’s something that we take very seriously and to heart.”

How soon is an in-person comeback?

News outlets are wary of returning to in-person events too soon, but all those interviewed by the Medill Local News Initiative were confident that they would indeed come back.

Spirited Media’s Brady expects the return to be slow, but “I think they’ll be back. I just think they’re too key a plank in the reader journey to give them up.”

Jiles said the Houston Defender has put the question to focus groups, with help from the audience engagement consultancy Hearken.

“We don’t have any live events planned,” Jiles said. “But we’ve been working … with focus groups around some targets, and those targets are giving us an idea of what kind of events they want. What I don’t want to do is just roll the dice and hope and pray. I want to find out what the people want and give them what they want.”

“For in-person events, I believe it will probably be third or fourth quarter,” said Dallas’ Cates, who added that the issue was complicated by the fact that many events are held in an auditorium in the same building as the newsroom.

“It’s going to look a little different, just because we normally have all the events in our office, and we’re currently not working from our office,” she said. “The company is working on the return-to-office plan, and that will affect how I can have events because it’s letting all those extra bodies into the building.”

The “experiences” portion of Dallas’ Rewards program is scheduled to return in June with tickets to suites for sporting events.

Like the Houston Defender, The Dallas Morning News has asked readers about their comfort level concerning in-person events.

“We’ve surveyed about 200 of the readers, and it’s split,” she said. “So what will always end up happening when we go back to in-person events is we’ll have a virtual component.”

Texas Tribune’s Weaver put it this way: “We will let the science drive our early decisions, and we’re not there yet.”

The Star Tribune is “starting with things that we know can be done safely,” such as a 5K race on Father’s Day, Ikeman said. “But things like our Top Workplaces, which is 700 people in a ballroom, that we’re going to continue to do virtually. We’re going to start safe and see how the market evolves.”

The Star Tribune is waiting to see whether this year’s Minnesota State Fair will begin in late August as scheduled.

The Local Media Association’s Lane thinks news outlets’ return to in-person events will primarily occur next year.

“I think by 2022, the pent-up demand is going to be huge and it will come back quickly,” she said. “… The people who are rushing to hold in-person events in the fall of 2021, I’m just not sure that that’s going to work out for them. They’ll get a certain percentage of people who will do it, who will be ready, but we’re in a transition year in 2021.

“There’s a lot of expense involved in in-person events, a lot of risk,” Lane said. “And I don’t know if you can take that risk this year. But by 2022, people want that in-person experience and they’re going to be craving it. I don’t think it comes back to the levels it was at pre-COVID in 2022, but I think we do come back quickly.”

As he anticipates the emergence from the pandemic, The Star Tribune’s Ikeman is thinking about a key question:

“As we move forward, how can we combine the scalability of the virtual and the digital things we’re doing … with the unbeatable, powerful impact of being in person? I think that’s going to be the real challenge moving forward.”

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Mark Jacob is editor of the Medill Local News Initiative website at Northwestern University.
Mark Jacob

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